In 2009 both Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford exceeded our expectations. For Ellsbury the question before the season was: Can he steal 50 again? He answered with a vehement, “Hell yes!” while adding 20 more steals to his 2008 total. For Crawford, it was about staying healthy after an across-the-board down season in 2008. He did just that stealing a career high 60 bases in 2009 while adding 15 homeruns into the mix. Both of these speedsters will see a significant boost in 2010 draft stock. It is very possible that fantasy owners may be faced with the question: Who do I take? Ellsbury or Crawford?
Let’s start by looking at their 2009 rankings via the three major fantasy host sites:
Jacoby Ellsbury is an absolute machine when it comes to stealing bases. In 2008 he was 55 for 61 in steal attempts, good for a 90% success rate. In 2009 he was 70 for 82, good for an 85% success rate. That is a pretty good indication that Ellsbury knows what he’s doing when he gets on base and that he should continue to find success when he decides to run. Can we expect 70 again? More!? That is quite the tall order, but Ellsbury is still young enough (26) and maintained his speed score from 2008 (8.2) so it is certainly not out of the question. However, the most likely scenario is that he regresses just a bit, which would still put him in the elite 60-plus steal category.
Aside from speed, Ellsbury brings a .300 AVG and a little pop to his offensive game. That looks like where he should stay for the foreseeable future. He hit over .300 in every month except for April and September with reasonable BABIP’s along the way. In 2008 pitchers were able to get Ellsbury out by pounding him inside with good fastballs. That was less of an issue as the 2009 season went along. According to stats on baseball-reference.com Ellsbury struggled to a .275 AVG against “power” pitchers in 2008. Talk about improvement; he hit .303 against “power” pitchers in 2009. For his first two seasons Ellsbury has showed no indication of problems against left-handed pitching as he has hit for relatively the same AVG against lefties as he does righties.
What we see in Ellsbury is likely what we will get: An AVG around .300 with 90-100 runs scored, 50-60 RBI, around 10 homeruns and 60-plus steals.
Carl Crawford has a much longer track record than Jacoby Ellsbury, though in his first few seasons he was basically Ellsbury without the walks and lower OBP. Clearly Crawford has developed some power, though the jury is still out as to where his ultimate ceiling is for that department.
We can throw out Crawford’s 2008 at this point as injuries played a major role in declining stats. Aside from that season he has stolen at least 45 bases every year 50-plus bases four times and now one season of 60 steals. Same question to Crawford that we asked of Ellsbury: Can we expect 60 again? More!? Crawford has tremendous speed, we can’t deny that, but unlike Ellsbury he has not been quite as consistent when it comes to stealing bases. Did you know that about 1/3 of Crawford’s stolen bases came in one month? In May Crawford stole 21 bases, 11 more than his next highest number, which was in June. Aside from May and June, Crawford did not have a month of double digit steals and his pace declined noticeably from July thru September (along with his batting AVG). On a whole, Crawford was successful on 79% of his steal attempts. Close to 80% is good, but not quite to the level of current success displayed by Ellsbury. What does this all mean with regards to 2010? I’m concerned in the fact that aside from one super-good month, Crawford was inconsistent with both his stolen bases and batting average.
At the plate, Crawford has a consistent track record of a non-selective approach as he has swung at over 30% of pitches outside the strike-zone for five straight seasons. One part of his game that has not been as consistent is his AB/HR rates. This season Crawford held his second highest AB/HR rate (2006 was his highest). While he’s young enough to show improvement in power, it is more likely that he’ll level off around his career average AB/HR rate or slightly better. Over his career he has been much more of a line-drive/groundball hitter than fly-ball hitter.
When I look at these two face-to-face the first thing I notice is that Ellsbury, only two years younger is just now heading into the prime of his career with solid, consistent, peripherals. He swings at fewer bad pitches, strikes out less and has a very solid stolen base success rate. While he doesn’t have the power potential of Crawford, we’re only talking about a difference of five to eight (estimated) homeruns. I’d rather have that difference in stolen bases.
The bottom line: While I would like to have either player on my fantasy team in 2010, I’m giving the edge to Ellsbury. When we look at who has the better chance for improvement, it’s Ellsbury in my eyes. There is just a little bit more room for fluctuation in Crawford’s AVG and power numbers as well as a second half decline in 2009.
Note: The first few paragraphs on Jacoby Ellsbury were taken from “The Red Sox Offense: Present and future” an article I wrote for Fire Brand of the AL. You can read that entire article here.
Charlie Saponara is the owner/author of fantasybaseball365.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org